Interview with Tonia Shoumatoff
- In coming back to the Episcopal tradition a little bit in the last couple of years with Joel and Zoe (my husband and daughter), and in reconnecting with the Russian Orthodox tradition, I've realized that those are extremely valid paths. You can go as deep as you want to go, it really depends on the intention of the individual.
- The path of Buddhism is actually about being a lamp unto yourself, and looking closely at your mind, and how your mind works and what emotions you want.
- …the difference with Tibetan Buddhism is that you have the intention of benefiting other beings through your practice. The big emphasis is on having the intention in your body, speech and mind of being a benefit to all beings.
- I'm not doing as much formal practice as I used to. I believe that there are periods in your life when you are given a practice that is different than formal meditation practice. So right now loving my daughter is part of my practice, listening to my husband is part of my practice, being with my dog and going for a walk is part of my practice.
- In Tibetan Buddhism there are wrathful deities who cut through negative mental energy, and there are peaceful deities, who do the same thing, but in a more peaceful way. Some people may need a wrathful deity, because they're intense; or maybe someone who's very calm might need a wrathful deity.
- I think when people go through something life changing, sometimes it throws them back on themselves in a very essential way, and they look into themselves deeply enough to find something spiritual that helps them through.
- Tibetan Buddhism teaches you to put all holy books of any tradition in a high place, and to have respect for all traditions.
Ann: In which spiritual tradition were you raised?
Tonia: I was brought up as an Episcopalian, although my family's background is Russian Orthodox. My parents felt that part of assimilating was becoming part of the society we were being raised in. My grand-parents came here from Russia in 1917, so my parents were first generation Americans, and I'm second generation. There was no Russian Orthodox church around here, so we went to Russian Orthodox services maybe once a year. The Russian Orthodox tradition is very mystical, and that had a profound influence on me. I felt a stronger connection to the Russian Orthodox Church than I did to the Episcopal Church, but I was raised Episcopalian and sent to an Episcopalian school. I knew all the hymns; the best part of the Episcopalian tradition for me was the liturgical aspect and the chanting, or the hymns, which I think awakens the heart energy. I still feel that it's very nice to know those hymns.
Around here, the church was almost like a social club, which felt superficial to me. But I've made my peace with the Episcopal Church recently, and I have a friend who is the vicar of the local parish. This man is very respectful of the fact that I'm a Tibetan Buddhist. He was a monk for twelve years in the Holy Cross Order of the Episcopal Church, and he's brought a form of Gregorian chant back into the church. I realize that Christianity is a valid path for certain people, and I totally respect that.
The Dalai Lama (http://www.tibet.com/index.html) said that it's easier to work with your karmic connections to the religion you were brought up in, and to work with your family, because you have a natural connection to those things, so it's easier to understand that path. So if possible, he recommends that people stay within the tradition of their family. But I feel that I have a past-life connection with Tibetan Buddhism that's so strong that I have to pursue it. That mystical calling came to me at a fairly young age. Of course, I believe in ecumenicism and interfaith awareness and peace work.
Ann: How long did you follow the Russian Orthodox and the Episcopal traditions? Did you follow them through your teen years?
Tonia: Well, I asked for my name to be taken off the membership roles of the Episcopal Church when I was fifteen, so I don't think I was ever actually confirmed, but I did go to an Episcopal Church school until I was sixteen. The Russian Orthodox tradition was always there for me, but I never knew it that well because we didn't go all that often. Recently I sort of rediscovered an aspect of it, because there's a little church here on St. Salisbury that I go to, and I included the priest from that church in the peace festival that I used to produce. I've found that it's an amazing tradition. I'm very grateful to have had those two traditions in my background.
Ann: And did you lose faith in those traditions when you were sixteen?
Tonia: I think that I associated the Episcopal Church with the society that emanated from it. It was elitist, it supported the power structure of our New York, Wall Street society, which I was rejecting in the sixties because it felt hollow to me. And the approach to religion that I felt my parents' generation was espousing-having their cocktail parties and feeling that they were better than other people on the one hand, and going to church once a week on the other-that approach felt like hypocrisy to me, and I felt that I had to separate myself from it.
Ann: Did you study other spiritual paths, or were you more into social action, or did you satisfy your spiritual need in some other way?
Tonia: This is a very odd story, but I got interested in the born-again Christian movement for a short period of time, because I felt that there was something very pure about people trying to be like the original Christians. I thought if you were going to be Christian you should really do it and really study the Bible. I also went through a time of studying the Bible very seriously and becoming a Jehovah's Witness. I lived in Austria for a year, and I learned woodcarving. I connected with a very loving family, especially the grandmother, and they were Jehovah's Witnesses. The grandmother taught me cooking and sewing and knitting; all the things I didn't learn as an upper class Westchester girl, which I was longing for-sort of a reconnection with my feminine side. I studied with that family and went to their congregation. That experience gave me a foundation in studying the Bible, which I think is so important for understanding our Western tradition and the literature and philosophy of our culture.
I think because of my connection with Jehovah's Witnesses, when I came back here, I connected very strongly with people I wouldn't have met in my echelon of society in Bedford, New York. I felt like I could move out of the social box I was put into by my birth because I could talk to people on the deepest level, from the heart, about what they believed in. That meant a lot to me.
I think that was a necessary baby step for my spiritual evolution. And then I had to break away from that tradition after about three years. I was in college, and I was studying the repression of the individual in Russia by the collective consciousness of Communism. I felt that the danger of any collective solution or collective thinking, where an individual's behavior is proscribed in a certain way (as it is in the born-again tradition or the Jehovah's Witnesses), is that it ends up curtailing freedom and persecuting individuals. As I studied, I realized that I have a tendency to be so idealistic that I would embrace a collective form of thinking. I felt that I had to be very careful about that, and I decided that it was more important for me to seek my path separately.
I was probably about twenty-one. My oldest brother, who had been studying Chinese at Oxford, was a big influence on me. He had connections with Tibetan Buddhists, and he had lived in the same building with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who was the founder of the Naropa Institute. The first lama I met was Kalu Rinpoche, and in 1976 my brother told me that His Holiness the 16th Karmapa was coming to Bedford Hills to do the Vajra Crown Ceremony. So I met His Holiness Karmapa, and I ended up taking refuge with him at the Plaza Hotel in 1980, on his second trip here. And that was kind of a turning point for me, because it was a serious commitment to a more individual path of spiritual practice.
Ann: Looking back, do you see these many different paths that you've taken as harmonious in any way?
Tonia: In coming back to the Episcopal tradition a little bit in the last couple of years with Joel and Zoe (my husband and daughter), and in reconnecting with the Russian Orthodox tradition, I've realized that those are extremely valid paths. You can go as deep as you want to go, it really depends on the intention of the individual. Not everybody is a very spiritual person, we have to accept that people have levels of spirituality-so some people go with the intention that they just want to meet people and have coffee hour, and maybe give some charity at Christmas, you know. And someone else would like to go into a monastery and do a retreat once a year, and someone else wants to become a monk. Well that's okay, those traditions give people the option of those levels of commitment.
Ann: Who are the spiritual heroes or heroines in your own background? Who are the people who have strongly influenced your beliefs and maybe opened doors for you?
Tonia: Well, of course I would have to say my immediate teachers, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, who's the abbot of the Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Woodstock, NY, and Lama Norlha, who's also here in this area.
Ann: Now, are they Tibetan or American?
Tonia: They're Tibetan.
Ann: And do they speak English?
Tonia: No, neither of them speaks English well, but when they teach it's through a translator.
Ann: But even in translation, you're working with such different cultures it must make it a little more of a struggle.
Tonia: Not really for me, because I feel that the tradition deals with essential truths of our being. The path of Buddhism is actually about being a lamp unto yourself, and looking closely at your mind, and how your mind works and what emotions you want. So the grid of Tibetan Buddhism is just a map of a tradition, and it really works. It's a wonderful, accessible path for people who want to practice that close self-examination. The teachings are so logical that if you follow them, little by little it starts to make a lot of sense. And it's scaled to people's level-it takes a long time to develop and to work with your mind and to unravel your neurotic tendencies.
It's similar to our Western tradition of psychotherapy, where you look closely at neurotic patterns of behavior that are based in your early childhood, and by understanding them you become free of them. I think the difference with Tibetan Buddhism is that you have the intention of benefiting other beings through your practice. The big emphasis is on having the intention in your body, speech and mind of being a benefit to all beings. It's called boddhichitta, it's constantly in your mind. Some people just want to be enlightened for the sake of being enlightened, and that's okay. But trying to be enlightened so that you can be of benefit to others is a very sacred intention, and that's called trying to be a boddhisattva.
Ann: So certainly those Buddhist teachers have been important to you. When you were younger was there anybody who opened your mind to the possibility of seeking more deeply?
Tonia: Well my great uncle was a painter and an explorer in Central Asia, and he was in Tibet in 1906, way before Alexandra David Neill. He did paintings of Tibetan monasteries and lamas, and he did illustrations of Tibetan magical stories for children. His name was Andrey Avinoff.
Ann: That's interesting; the seeds were planted very, very early. Was he more mystical than your parents?
Tonia: Very mystical. My parents were mystical in their own way, they had their connection to the mountains and nature. But I'd say he was specifically tuned in to. I look at it as the light in his paintings; he was tuned in to a sort of light awareness, a very high level of awareness. And he actually did paintings of buddhas with all the chakras on them. He kind of predicted in his paintings the millennial, apocalyptic feeling of the time that we're living in. So I think that that had a profound influence on me.
He died in 1949, but my first paid job when I graduated from college was to catalogue his work for a company that was creating limited edition prints of his paintings. But it wasn't until my own spiritual practice developed that I grew to appreciate more of his sacred work.
Ann: And are there any other teachers you can think of who have touched you deeply, and opened you to this larger view of life?
Tonia: I think the first book that I read that had a profound influence on me was the Autobiography of a Yogi, by Paramahansa Yogananda. That showed me that individuals are capable of seeking truth and finding it, that they will be guided and that it's okay to ask for help or to ask for a guru or a teacher.
I was also very influenced by a number of women in the healing tradition, like Carolyn Rousmaniere; Ione, of Women's Mysteries; and you. They taught me that by generating compassion for others in our being, we can be of help to people around us. I think having a circle of friends through the New Age spiritual tradition of prayer and meditation for peace has also opened up a lot of doors for me. Having the friendship of others who were seeking was very important to me.
Sandra Ray had an influence on me; she was part of the rebirthing movement. When she talked about the immortality of the physical body, it seemed a little too far out for me, but she rebirthed me.
Carl Jung was a great influence; I studied and was in Jungian analysis for a long time, and that was incredibly helpful. I've kept a dream journal since I was sixteen years old, and I still write down my dreams. And reading Ed Edinger and Annie Ulanov and so many of the Jungian writers has been very helpful, because they take a spiritual approach to psychology, to our minds, to who we are.
Another big influence for me is the twelve-step program. I attended Al-Anon and ACOA meetings for many years. I found that the essential core information in those twelve steps, and having a group within which to work those, is so helpful for any spiritual path. And it doesn't cost any money. I happened to pick two paths to really stick with-Tibetan Buddhism and the twelve-step program-that seemed very authentic to me and didn't cost a whole lot of money. That was also meaningful to me at the time, in my twenties.
I just heard a story on National Public Radio today about a young woman who was studying witchcraft with a mentor in England, and they were making the point that you don't need to spend a lot of money to create magic in your life. With intention and awareness of nature you can work with blocks and spells and very basic things to create a connection-it's basically about creating a connection for the mind to have positive intention. I think the scary thing for a lot of young people is that they feel that they have to spend all this money on expensive programs to be able to find themselves.
Ann: Can you think of any profound spiritual experiences that you've had that have been associated with birth or sickness or death?
Tonia: I think that through pain comes awareness. And actually, almost every time that I've been sick I've felt a coming back to myself of course people don't want to be sick, and they resist it, and they want to get well right away. But actually I've found that my times of sickness are really a gift, because they allow me time to look inward, to reflect, to find new ways of seeing-to see what I'm
doing that's off-center and how I want to change.
Just recently my father passed away, and I managed to do everything that needed to be done for the funeral and the memorial, and then I kind of collapsed in January. I couldn't walk for two weeks. And it was during that time that I was graced with reading about macrobiotics and thinking about dietary changes I wanted to make in my life. So I went to a yoga center, and I practiced fairly strict vegetarianism for two or three months, and that was helpful. That's just one example.
Ann: Do you have any sense of your father's presence being around to assist you, or to guide you in a spiritual sense?
Tonia: I feel imbued with and impressed by his sense of compassion and selflessness and the value he placed on doing the right thing and serving others. He was a very selfless person, and he was very open to all other traditions. He came to the Tibetan Buddhist Center and he checked out the Jehovah's Witnesses. I think he was pretty open considering the more conservative traditions that he came out of. So that's an example for me, and I think in opening my own being to the beauty of those values, I feel this physical sense that his spiritual being is all around; I can convey love to him at any time. I think we can transcend the so-called barriers between life and death with love. Those we feel are not with us actually are with us, but we may not know it. When we have that faith, they're able to feel our love.
In both Buddhism and Christianity there's a tradition that the forty days after a person's passing are important. There's a feeling that the spiritual or physical presence of the person who passed away is in a transitional state for those forty days and that praying for them is very important during that time. And on the fortieth day after my father's passing, I had two experiences that seemed more than coincidental. I was driving up to Great Barrington to show my daughter a college, and I was intending to go to the Norman Rockwell Museum. I took a wrong turn and ended up at the Marion Shrine of Divine Mercy. And it just happened to be the day of the prayer for those who have passed on. It was Halloween, October 31-you know, All Hallow's Eve, All Saint's Day? So I was able to put my father's name on the list to receive the prayers of all the people there, and that felt very auspicious. That same day, or the next day after that, I was at a Buddhist center and they were putting all the young retreatants into retreat, and I was able to ask them to pray for my father for their three years in retreat. So there were a lot of connections around my father's passing that felt more than coincidental.
Ann: Which spiritual practices help you follow your path as a Tibetan Buddhist?
Tonia: I think one of the most basic ones is connecting through the breath, which you can do in any place, at any time. Remembering to be centered in the moment through your breath is very helpful. Also, the Dalai Lama said that looking up at the sky and seeing the spaciousness of the sky can be very helpful. So they’re really simple things. If you have a formal practice, it's wonderful to be able to do some sitting meditation; you can do walking meditation too, where you follow your breath and count up to twenty-one, and then you let your breath go. You make a practice of trying to do that at least twenty to thirty minutes a day.
Ann: You breathe in to the count of twenty-one?
Tonia: Well that's the beginning, that's for shinay, or "calming the mind" meditation. You count on the out breath up to twenty-one, and then after that you imagine the string of a violin being pulled taut and breaking, and you rest your mind in the gap, or the space between the remaining strings. But these are some of the guidelines that my teacher gave for shinay meditation, which is the most basic form of meditation. It's as if we had a glass of water with sand and mud in it-when you put the glass of water down, the mud starts to filter down to the bottom. That's the way it is with our thoughts: We're all very bubbly and mixed up, and then when we sit and follow our breath, we start to settle and we start seeing the craziness of all the thoughts.
Recently I think my practice has been to focus on creating harmony in my home. I'm not doing as much formal practice as I used to. I believe that there are periods in your life when you are given a practice that is different than formal meditation practice. So right now loving my daughter is part of my practice, listening to my husband is part of my practice, being with my dog and going for a walk is part of my practice.
Ann: Because it's about consciousness-is that part of your practice? Not just to be there, but to see those connections in a deeper, more openhearted, more open-minded way. Because someone who doesn't do this might say, "Well I talk to my husband. Is that a practice?" But it's how you go about each of those activities. I remember a wonderful story that teaches that you should wash your dishes as though each dish were the baby Buddha, so it's a sacred act, and you do it ever so tenderly.
Tonia: Thich Nat Han talks about that. He's wonderful.
I think that in the beginning, when you start on a spiritual path you get really excited about the bells and whistles and the incense and the Buddhas and the shrine. But then hopefully after it becomes more a part of your being, you carry it with you, and it becomes part of your life. So when you're faced with someone on the street who's in pain, maybe you don't turn away quite as quickly-you acknowledge that person's pain. Or when you're tempted to be abrupt with a rude sales clerk, maybe you don't rush to say something rude back; you have compassion for that person, and for the fact that that person may be tired, and they want to go home. Hopefully that's where all of us will get to with our practice-having this positive intention that has a ripple effect on the world around us.
Ann: I know there isn't a divine God in Tibetan Buddhism, there isn't a single God figure. But there is a certain higher order to things, isn't there?
Tonia: There are many different deities, or emanations of divinity. I think people who have been brought up in the Christian tradition are very frightened by the concept of deities, because they think of demons and spirits. All the thankas you have seen, the paintings, the iconography-like Tara, who's the female boddhisattva, she's green; you have Chenrezig, who is the Boddhisattva of Compassion; and the Medicine Buddha, who is blue and is an emanation of healing energy. Each one of these beings embodies one of the qualities of what we in the Christian tradition would call God-compassion, wisdom, all those elements. There are different deities for the different aspects that you're connected to. Usually, a person connects with one of those, and each one of those deities has it's own sadhaná, or liturgy.
Ann: So like a saint-you might take Saint Theresa, and you align your energy with that saint.
Tonia: Right. Your teacher would recommend one. Say, for example, I felt a strong connection to the Buddha of healing, the Medicine Buddha. I've been very interested in healing, and I had sort of a dream when I first was introduced to that Buddha, that was something very important for me. And I also feel connected to the Green Tara. She's a female wrathful deity, and she's very powerful and has a lot of qualities. She's also compassion, she was born out of a tear in the eye of Chenrezig, the Boddhisattva of Compassion. In Tibetan Buddhism there are wrathful deities who cut through negative mental energy, and there are peaceful deities, who do the same thing, but in a more peaceful way. Some people may need a wrathful deity, because they're intense; or maybe someone who's very calm might need a wrathful deity, I don't know how the lamas figure it out.
Ann: The lama gives you a deity?
Tonia: One is usually recommended to you, or you feel a connection with a particular deity. I think as you go on you're connected more with a deity's practices. All the deities are basically emanations of love, of compassion.
Ann: So there is something like a godhead?
Tonia: Well no, there's no godhead. The deities are emanations of qualities. They are physical emanations of enlightened beings. There are realms where people who have attained enlightenment may be transformed into enlightened beings. Maybe you would call them angels in the Christian tradition, or saints. Their intentions of being of benefit to all are acceptable to us, and they can be evoked through a visualization, through a liturgy.
Ann: So you can speak to them and they might answer you in some form?
Tonia: Well no, it's more formalized than that. They have a liturgy; they have a mantra. So by imbuing yourself with the qualities of the enlightened being, hopefully they will start manifesting in your being.
It's as if you're creating a grid for their enlightened energy to come through. They're the electricity and you're the light bulb, and eventually the electricity will come through the grid and light up the bulb. That's the idea of tantric practice: eventually, hopefully, some of that energy will find a place in your enlightened being and will transform you.
Ann: In Christianity we would say the same thing, that you would be empowered by the Holy Spirit. I'm trying to find similarities, although I hear that that's not a good thing to do.
Tonia: It's not a good thing to do. I understand the need, because I do the same thing. That's why the Dalai Lama said it's easier to understand from your own tradition, because your mind has this grid that it was brought up with, and that's a framework for understanding things.
Carl Jung said the Western mind can never understand the Eastern mind, but I don't believe that's true. I think we're all human beings, and I think we all have our own experience. And I think there's a universality to the experiences of saints or enlightened beings that can be a guideline for us. But ultimately, we have to find our own path, and we have to put it into practice.
Ann: Do you have a spiritual community? Or you may have several spiritual communities.
Tonia: I go to the Tibetan Buddhist monastery up in Woodstock, and I consider myself to be a student primarily of Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche. I used to go at least for a week a year. In 1982 I spent a month there, and I've done six-day retreats at Kagyn Thupten Choling Center. As I said, my family's been more demanding, so I haven't been so much in the last few years. But I try to go when there's a special teacher or an empowerment. I feel very connected to the practitioners, I ask them to light butter lamps for me when I have a decision to make in my life. There's a very special butter lamp offering there. I did it for Zoe when she had to get into school and get a scholarship, and she got the scholarship. It's like asking people to pray for you, and it goes on for two weeks.
Ann: It's a community.
Tonia: Oh definitely-it's a sangha. When you take refuge you take refuge in the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha. The Buddha is the one who has attained enlightenment, the dharma is the path to enlightenment, and the sangha is the community of seekers.
Ann: Are there any other spiritual communities that you have?
Tonia: Well my other big community has been the women's community with Ione. It's a group of women doing spiritual practice together. These women want to go deeper; they work with dreams, they work with shamanic techniques, they work to support one another. We also had a prayer hotline for each other. We meditated together, we were respectful of whatever each of us was going through. Having that women's circle was very important to me.
Ann: So although they're quite divergent, there's a harmony between those communities?
Tonia: Oh yes; there are even a few women in that group who are connected to Tibetan Buddhism.
Ann: How do think about it when really bad things happen to good people? Is there any kind of spiritual teaching that helps you through that?
Tonia: I think first and foremost it's really important to have compassion for what the other person is going through and to try to be there for them. I'm working with a ninety-one year old lady right now who's a grandmother, she has twenty-five children and grandchildren, and she's blind. And I feel it's a gift for me to be able to be there for her, because she's given so much in her life. I read to her, I guide her and help her around her house. So that's taught me a lot.
A dear friend of mine lost her husband in a terrible car accident-he got out of his car to help someone else and was hit by a car. He was in a coma, and she had to pull the plug. It was a difficult situation, and it took her years to recover from that experience. I will never know how much pain she really went through, and what that really felt like, but I felt really connected to her. I felt I wanted to help, so I helped with the memorial and made arrangements to feed her cats.
I think when people go through something life changing, sometimes it throws them back on themselves in a very essential way, and they look into themselves deeply enough to find something spiritual that helps them through. You don't want bad things to happen, obviously, but it seems, as they say in the Christian tradition, that God doesn't give us more than we can bear. There is growth that occurs during life-changing situations.
Ann: What is our place in the world? Is there a reason for human beings to be here?
Tonia: Well in the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism they talk about the five realms of being, and humans are just one of the five realms. There's the animal realm and the human realm. There's what they call the demi-god realm or the jealous god realm-they're sort of semi-enlightened beings who fight a lot. There's the God realm. And then there's the hungry ghost realm and the hell realm. None of these are enlightened beings; these are the five levels of unenlightened beings. You could view all of these as mental states, but if you talk to a lama they view them as actual real places where people really are. So we're all in Samsara, according to Buddhism, we're all on this wheel of karma where we keep repeating modes of behavior that get us stuck.
Ann: Through many lifetimes?
Tonia: Through many lifetimes. The idea is to see where we are repeating negative behavior and to find solutions to stop it, to transform it, and hopefully we evolve.
Ann: Do Buddhists believe that the whole world is evolving, or just some people are evolving?
Tonia: People can evolve up or down according to their choices, through their thoughts. And there are lessons to be learned in every realm. Hopefully we get to the point where we can be released from the suffering; the idea of enlightenment is to be released from the suffering of the cycle. I think that the essential element in evolution is to stop the compulsive behavior that's generated by grasping thoughts, and to generate more thought for others and kindness and compassion. As we start changing our minds, we change each other, and that will have a ripple effect.
In Buddhism they say that we're in a dark era right now. We're in the dark, at the end of the dark age. The Shambhala period is the period where enlightenment comes, so there may be some light at the end of the tunnel, but I think that depends on enough people working towards and seeing the light.
Ann: In my interviews I've spoken to a Catholic sister who has done zazen and studies Zen Buddhism, and an ex-Jesuit priest who now teaches Shamanism. So it does appear that these traditions can work together.
Tonia: They do. I studied yoga for ten days in March and April at the Sivananda Yoga Center, and there was a nun who spends her whole winter there every year. She's a Carmelite, and she's very involved with the ecumenical movement. She's a lovely, beautiful soul, and she just loves being there and doing yoga. And I must say, I feel a good connection; Hindu and Buddhist traditions are fairly close. I didn't feel any sense of disloyalty to my teachers by participating in the Hindu chants and meditations. I had a little bit of conflict about going back to church, but it's important to be able to work with churches because they have positive intention. We should be shape shifters in our society: I think we should be able to shift into one mode or another to work with people.
Ann: Has your husband gone on all these different paths with you, or has he stayed with the Episcopal Church?
Tonia: He has great respect for the lamas, he sees how amazing they are. He's been very supportive of my practice. And I have to recognize, as somebody was telling me, that not everybody has the karma in this life of doing formal spiritual practice. And that doesn't make those who do better than the ones who don't. Sometimes the ones who don't do it have already done so much practice, maybe in a past life, that they don't need to do any more. You never know-I mean I feel my husband has much more patience than I do, for example. I think that he comes from a different mindset than I do. I have to work with different energy in my mind, aggressive energy. Everybody has different neurotic patterns; he has his own neurotic patterns that he has to combat, but they're different than mine.
Ann: And what do the Tibetan Buddhists say-or even what are your own personal thoughts-about what happens when we die?
Tonia: Well I think Tibetan Buddhism is really helpful for understanding more about dying, because they work with that a lot, and there's something called The Tibetan Book of the Dead. In my opinion, one of the most helpful things Tibetan Buddhists teach is that when you're with a dying person, you can acknowledge that they're dying. I think we live in a culture where people deny death and say, "Oh well, you're going to be okay. You're not really dying, you're going to live." But I think if someone's really dying, sometimes the most compassionate thing is to let them know that they're dying and that you're going to be there with them and that that's okay. In that sense I think Tibetan Buddhism is more grounded than, for example, doctors who refuse to tell cancer patients that they're dying. When that happens, the family has no tools to work with the person's dying consciousness. The person's dying consciousness needs something to hold onto, something to guide them through. Having another person's steady consciousness with you while you're passing is very important; it's important to know that that person is there with you.
Ann: Your father has just very recently died. Were you with him?
Tonia: Both Joel and I were.
Ann: And did you talk to him in that way?
Tonia: We did, after we felt everything had been done. He was in the hospital, and after we told him that nothing more could be done, he actually let go very quickly and passed away within a day. He was eighty-one. I think it was very freeing for him. It was hard to do, but having that little Tibetan Book of the Dead to read through…I said to Zoe right before I spoke to him, "Should I say this, should I do this?"
She said, "Yes mom, it's the biggest gift you can give him."
And he had said to me, before he went into the hospital, "I want you to inform me every step of the way what's happening." So we had done all the tests-he had a non-malignant stomach tumor; he couldn't swallow in the end, so he wasn't able to eat. I had been telling him every step of the way everything that was going on, so now it was the time to tell him that there was no more to be done. Actually, the doctors told us that we should have given up a month before. But we went through surgery with him, we went through a whole long process to keep him, because his book was being published and he wanted to stay for that.
Ann: And was he able to stay for that?
Tonia: No, but he knew that his book had been handed in and was going to be published. That was thirty years of his life.
So Tibetan Buddhism has been incredibly helpful to me when people have passed away. It gave me something concrete to be able to work with, and prayers to do. And other people have sometimes asked me to pray for their loved ones, and that's been such an honor, to put their names on the shrine or to think of them. I think that's a real gift in this tradition.
Ann: Now if someone wanted to study Tibetan Buddhism, and they lived someplace else in the United States, how would they go about doing that?
Tonia: Well there are many centers all around the United States now, in almost every state. And there are four schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and many, many books out there. And there's the Naropa Institute in Colorado; there's Odiyan and the Tibetan Nyingma Institute in Berkeley, California; there is Karma Triyana Dharmachakra Monastery in Woodstock, New York. I think people should start by reading books to see who they resonate with. There are a lot of amazing teachers. You can get your Ph.D. in Tibetan Buddhism now, you can go and study Buddhism and get college credit for it.
Ann: Tibetan Buddhism here in America, is it twenty years old, thirty years old?
Tonia: It's pretty young. The Zen Buddhism tradition goes back a little further, to the fifties. But Tibetan Buddhism probably goes back to the early seventies.
Ann: Well, is there anything that you'd like to close with?
Tonia: I think studying Tibetan Buddhism has given me more compassion, openness and respect for other traditions. That's something I really value. For example, I've recently become interested in Judaism because I knew so little about it, and a lot of my friends are Jewish. It was interesting for me to find that there's a very deep mystical tradition within Judaism, Kabbalah. I think all of these traditions have secret or sacred mystical traditions within them, so anyone can relate in an outer way and in an inner way, or a secret way, to any of these traditions. Studying Tibetan Buddhism has given me a deeper appreciation for the mystical traditions within other religions. Tibetan Buddhism teaches you to put all holy books of any tradition in a high place, and to have respect for all traditions.